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I'm raising a philosophical question, here, having to do with the format and layout of M.SE versus the stated goals. Essentially, I am asking the question of whether the format of M.SE is in alignment with its stated goals. If this question sounds a lot like Marshall McLuhan, I won't deny the connection. I don't go so far as to say that the medium is the message, but I will definitely assert that the medium is an extremely important component of the message, and that certain mediums are better-suited to certain messages than others. Singing a song with wedding words to a funeral dirge tune simply doesn't work. So in McLuhan-esque fashion, does the medium of M.SE match its intended message?

For reference, the stated goals of M.SE, so far as I can make out, stem from a few disparate sources. The Tour says that M.SE is a Q&A "site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields." On the other hand, from various questions such as Homework questions - avoiding giving a complete solution, and FAQ for math.stackexchange, it is evident that helping students learn is clearly important to M.SE. The second thread there even says that

Providing an answer that doesn't help a student learn is not in the student's own best interest, and if a solution complete enough to be copied verbatim and handed in is given immediately, it will encourage more people to use the site as a free homework service.

  1. For most of the SE sites, what are valued in an answer are completeness, good research, and length. Unfortunately, the self-flagging features of M.SE are continually flagging short answers for the review queues even if the answers are short, helpful hints provided by high-rep, reliable, proven members. I've seen many answers by 100k+ members in the Low Quality Posts review queue! In other words, the kind of answer most helpful to students is the kind of answer auto-flagged by the review queues, thus causing a significant waste of users' time.

  2. However, with regard to long, complete, and researched answers, what is most helpful for students is precisely not that. What is most helpful for students is for them to present what they understand, pinpoint as accurately as they can where they're stuck, and then for someone to come along and help them get unstuck just in that one spot. That is, the student does the heavy lifting, and the helper is the spotter, to use literal weight-lifting terminology. The problem is that this process nearly always requires some give-and-take, some back-and-forth. The format of question and answer, with comments on questions and answers, is not well-suited to this, because that incredibly important information in the comments is a. not terribly visible, particularly when there are a lot of comments, and b. rarely re-incorporated back into the question or answer, because that duplicates the effort of typing up the comment in the first place.

  3. With regard to students using M.SE to cheat and essentially have someone else do their homework for them: it does not appear to me that M.SE has the moderation, technical tools, etc., to curb this one. How do we know whether M.SE is not being massively misused by a large number of students to inflate their grades without gaining true understanding? Again, the format of question and answer will have a tendency to produce rep-seekers who "jump the gun" on a question and just provide a complete answer (I know I've done that!), either because they know that complete, long, well-researched answers get up-voted, or because they are highly interested in the question (obviously, the second reason is totally legit; even the first reason is legit, but it raises the question of what we want to reward). So I ask the question, "What does a site like M.SE reward?" And is that really what we want to reward? Another way of looking at it is this: does this site provide to students what will really help them, or does it attract students who simply want someone else to do their work for them?

Solutions to these problems, if they are acknowledged as problems, would not be terribly easy, I should think. No. 1 might be the easiest: simply have a function in place that makes a post less likely to show up in the Low Quality Posts review queue depending on the rep of the user, and perhaps other factors. Some feature engineering (to use ML language) might be necessary to figure out the most accurate way to trim the review queues down. Numbers 2 and 3 are more systemic issues. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that Numbers 2 and 3 are kind of like saying, "The problem with M.SE is the SE part." N.B., I am not saying that the SE format is bad across the board. Stack Overflow is obviously a tremendous success, even with only a $71\%$ answer rate. I will say this: a more forum-like environment (where you just have one category: posts, and they're all on the same level) can be very effective in curbing the problems I've laid out, if you have good moderators. And maybe the solution to these problems is simply to elect way more moderators than we have now - say, ten times the number we currently have. I don't know.

What are your thoughts?

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    $\begingroup$ Could you say explicitly what you think are "the stated goals" of this site? $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 22 '18 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ The tour says that M.SE is a Q&A "site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields." On the other hand, from various questions such as math.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/415/… and math.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/107/…, it is evident that helping students learn is clearly important to M.SE. The second thread there even says that "Providing an answer that doesn't help a student learn is not in the student's own best interest, and if a solution..." $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 22 '18 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ "... complete enough to be copied verbatim and handed in is given immediately, it will encourage more people to use the site as a free homework service." I see this last quote as directly contradicting the overall SE philosophy and reward system, which is one of the main thrusts of this question. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 22 '18 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ That FAQ entry needs a revision. I think it's basically obsolete. Anyway, that's in no way the stated goal of the site. It's a guideline for one type of question (homework), which some consider by-and-large as off-topic anyway. This site is not a "help site." You should include that this is advice for homework questions. $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 22 '18 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ @quid: Fair enough on the FAQ. What would you estimate is the proportion of homework questions to total questions? And how do you think people who ask questions on M.SE are, for the most part, using M.SE? How do they view the site? Do they view M.SE as a help site? $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 22 '18 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ Depends on what exactly is a homework question. I think the advice given there was mostly targeted at what is called PSQ which by now are off-topic. It is possible that many people have a misconception about the site. This does not mean we should cater to this misconception, rather the contrary is true. $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 22 '18 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps I'm cynical here, but it sounds as though you're not necessarily trying to nail down the "mission" of this site, but assuming you believe the mission is to allow homework and problem-statement-questions-with-no-effort-nor-context posted with the expectation that MSE users do the OP's work for them, in order for there to be abundant simple questions that potential answerers can earn lots of rep for answering them? This site has never had such a goal. $\endgroup$ – Namaste Jun 22 '18 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy: I'm very curious how you came to that conclusion, because I believe I said more-or-less the opposite. I don't think anyone thinks the stated goal of M.SE is to allow HW or PSQ's with no effort, and to reward people who answer them completely. I do think there's an enormous amount of that actually going on at M.SE, due to the format of M.SE, which is what I said in the original question. As my colleague is fond of saying, "In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is." $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 22 '18 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: What do you think are the goals of M.SE? $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 22 '18 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ Ahh, @AdrianKeister, I clearly misread what you were getting at. So sorry. I agree, indeed, that there is too much rewarding of answers doing asker's work for them. I get what you are saying. I hope my comment was not off-putting to you. $\endgroup$ – Namaste Jun 22 '18 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ This is tagged feature-request, but I can't see the feature request in the question. Could you highlight it? $\endgroup$ – Peter Taylor Jun 22 '18 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterTaylor: If you read the paragraph beginning with "Solutions to these problems..." you'll see a feature request. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 22 '18 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ @amWhy: No worries, apology accepted. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 22 '18 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ "Stack Overflow is obviously a tremendous success" In my mind, math.stackexchange is obviously a tremendous success, despite the fact that it might not lend itself to guiding students one hint at a time to the discovery of a solution to their problem. I know I have learned a ton of great insights by reading math.stackexchange answers, and that to me is a primary goal of the sight: to share great math insights. You might be able to invent a site that promotes one-on-one interaction and guidance better, but math.stackexchange is already doing something very right. $\endgroup$ – littleO Jul 4 '18 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ With regards to people using MSE to do their homework or to "cheat", from my point of view, who cares, really? If they've got a question and want it answering then MSE is here to answer it. If some subset don't want to answer it then fine, that's their perogative. But if others do, then that's what the site's here for too. I have no resentment whatsoever for what some would call rep whores but the policing of this kind of behaviour from those users whose ego's aren't robust enough to stand by and do nothing while others farm easy rep, is pretty much the entirety of "the problem". $\endgroup$ – user334732 Jul 5 '18 at 11:28
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The question that you ask is quite broad, an comments are a bit too terse for discussion-in-detail. As such, I am going to attempt to address your points (1)-(3) in an answer.

(1) For most of the SE sites, what are valued in an answer are completeness, good research, and length. Unfortunately, the self-flagging features of M.SE are continually flagging short answers for the review queues even if the answers are short, helpful hints provided by high-rep, reliable, proven members. I've seen many answers by 100k+ members in the Low Quality Posts review queue! In other words, the kind of answer most helpful to students is the kind of answer auto-flagged by the review queues, thus causing a significant waste of users' time.

I think that it is important to make a distinction between "reputation" (i.e. the currency of social exchange; the way in which we regard people on the basis of their past actions) and "reputation points" (i.e. the imaginary internet points awarded by MSE to users for upvotes on questions and answers). To avoid confusion, I'll refer to the former as "reputation," and the latter as "XP."

It is very easy to very quickly earn a lot of XP by answering homework questions from calculus classes. If you can dash off an answer in a minute or two, you are virtually guaranteed to get at least 25 XP (an upvote from the questioner, plus a green check). It would take 13 downvotes to "cancel out" that quantity of XP. If one's goal is to earn XP, then all one has to do is spend a few hours a day answering questions that are tagged "pre-calculus" or "calculus."

On the other hand, such users are are diminishing their reputation, as well as the value of the site. Most of these kinds of questions are either duplicates of previous question, or are of very low quality, and should be closed rather than answered. It is, therefore, not unreasonable that answers to low-quality questions themselves get flagged as low quality.

As such, it should not be surprising at all that (a certain subset of) high XP users often have answers show up in the review queue. The point is to remember that XP and reputation are not the same thing, and should not be conflated. Playing Devil's Advocate, I might even argue the opposite position from that staked out in the question, i.e. that users who have a great deal of XP (especially in certain homework-prone tags) should receive extra scrutiny via the review queue.

(2) However, with regard to long, complete, and researched answers, what is most helpful for students is precisely not that. What is most helpful for students is for them to present what they understand, pinpoint as accurately as they can where they're stuck, and then for someone to come along and help them get unstuck just in that one spot. That is, the student does the heavy lifting, and the helper is the spotter, to use literal weight-lifting terminology. The problem is that this process nearly always requires some give-and-take, some back-and-forth. The format of question and answer, with comments on questions and answers, is not well-suited to this, because that incredibly important information in the comments is a. not terribly visible, particularly when there are a lot of comments, and b. rarely re-incorporated back into the question or answer, because that duplicates the effort of typing up the comment in the first place.

I think that it is, perhaps, time to revisit the homework policy. Every discussion of homework that I can find seems to date back to the very early days of MSE (for example, the guidelines for answering homework questions were written 8 years ago, and have receive no substantial revision since then). At the time, there was a (homework) tag which has since been burninated. To me, this indicates that the community was once somewhat more tolerant of homework style questions, but my feeling is that the culture here has shifted since those early Wild West days, and that Problem Statement Questions (PSQs) are much less welcome (at least by a large percentage of the folk who are active on Meta, which is, perhaps, a non-representative sample).

To stay a little more on-topic, I understand that the mission of MSE is to build a repository of high-quality questions with thorough, complete, well-researched answers. In some sense, the goal of MSE is to be an über-FAQ for mathematics. The goal is not to help students do their homework—there are other places that can do that (Yahoo! Answers, Quora, your local tutoring center, etc.). If students are helped by the answers here, great! But I think that the needs of students are somewhat orthogonal to the goals of MSE. I don't think that the desires of students should be given very much consideration when thinking about what the policy of MSE should be regarding PSQs.

(3) With regard to students using M.SE to cheat and essentially have someone else do their homework for them: it does not appear to me that M.SE has the moderation, technical tools, etc., to curb this one. How do we know whether M.SE is not being massively misused by a large number of students to inflate their grades without gaining true understanding? Again, the format of question and answer will have a tendency to produce rep-seekers who "jump the gun" on a question and just provide a complete answer (I know I've done that!), either because they know that complete, long, well-researched answers get up-voted, or because they are highly interested in the question (obviously, the second reason is totally legit; even the first reason is legit, but it raises the question of what we want to reward). So I ask the question, "What does a site like M.SE reward?" And is that really what we want to reward? Another way of looking at it is this: does this site provide to students what will really help them, or does it attract students who simply want someone else to do their work for them?

First off, I refuse to adjudicate the issue of who is genuinely interested in understanding the answer to a question, and who is attempting to cheat—not my circus, not my monkeys; this is the purview of the academic integrity office (or whatever) at the student's institution.

As I see it, the real issue is that homework-style PSQs are not good questions. Indeed, I would argue that they aren't questions at all; they are problems or exercises in mathematics, rather than being questions about mathematics. This is true whether or not an asker is attempting to cheat. Hence PSQs should be rapidly closed not because someone might be trying to cheat, but because they are off-topic for MSE.


Addressing the question more generally, I (and, if recent activity on Meta is any indication, many others) agree that there are problems with MSE. Personally, I think that these are cultural problems and not technical problems. Students have been trained to believe that MSE is a place where they can get their homework questions answered, which leads to the proliferation of such question on the site. People who answer those questions encourage the behaviour, and we end up with a vicious feedback.

Part of the solution is to aggressively close low-quality PSQs. I also think that it is reasonable to encourage people to downvote answers to PSQs, which should (hopefully) send the message that one should not answer such questions, but instead use the comment box to ask for further context or otherwise explain how the question itself could be improved. Again, this is a cultural problem, not a technical problem.

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    $\begingroup$ "My understanding is that homework question were once tolerated much better (and even encouraged; there used to be a (homework) tag!)." I don't think that tag was ever intended to encourage the posting of homework questions. I think its purpose was twofold. One, to steer people away from giving the kind of answer that the poster could just copy and then hand in as his own work, without putting any thought into it; two, to signal to posters who wanted nothing to do with homework questions that they could safely ignore the question. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jun 24 '18 at 0:08
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson Whether or not the tag was intended to encourage homework-style questions, it certainly has the effect of doing so. The fact that it no longer exists indicates that the community is now far less tolerant of homework-style questions than it once was, which was all that I intended to say (hyperbole aside). $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Jun 26 '18 at 3:04
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    $\begingroup$ To know why the homework tag no longer exists, you would have to go back to the discussions of the tag here on meta (I would encourage you to do this, and then report back on your findings – perhaps math.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/14981/… would be a good place to start your research). $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jun 26 '18 at 3:28
  • $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson I have read several threads on the homework tag. Near as I can tell it was always controversial and there was no clear consensus about how to handle homework-style questions. But that isn't my point at all. Once, there was a homework tag. Such a tag implicitly encourages newbies to ask homework questions (even if that wasn't the intent). That tag no longer exists. Ergo, the community is now less tolerant of homework-style questions than it once was. You seem to be arguing that this is not the case, but I don't see how anything you have said contradictions what I've written. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Jun 26 '18 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ The facts you present are consistent with the interpretation that the community never liked homework questions, and destroyed the tag when it realized that the existence of the tag was encouraging people to post homework questions. Anyway, I will agree with you that, at least in some sense, the community is less tolerant of homework than it once was; I just don't think the annihilation of the homework tag is particularly strong evidence of this opinion. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jun 26 '18 at 3:52
  • $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson Honestly, as far as I can tell, you are not disagreeing with me in the slightest. The strongest statements that I have made are that (1) the community was once more tolerant of PSQs than it is now ("more tolerant of" is not exclusive of "never liked"; we often tolerate things which we don't like) and (2) the existence of a homework tag encouraged people to ask such questions, ergo the community once encouraged people to ask them. I'm still not sure what point you are trying to make... $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Jun 26 '18 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ The existence of large amounts of money in banks encourages people to rob them, ergo the community encourages people to rob banks. The point I am trying to make concerns your misuse of the word, "ergo". $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jun 26 '18 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson That analogy is nonsense. MSE operates by having people ask questions which are then answered by the community. The tags (1) help to organize those questions and (2) help users (especially new users) understand what is on-topic. The existence of any particular tag, such at the matlab, suggests to newbie users that questions that fall under the umbrella of that tag are on-topic. Whether or not the community actively wants users to ask homework or MATLAB questions, the existence of such tags implicitly suggests to newbies that such questions are welcome. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Jun 26 '18 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ For the life of me, I can't understand how I have been unclear about this, and I can't follow what your point it. Rather than trying to clarify, you have condescended to me (saying "I would encourage you to do this, and then report back on your findings" rather than simply making whatever point you were intending to make, and suggesting that I don't know how to use the word "ergo"---in response to a conciliatory comment where I point out that we seem not to disagree). Peace out. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Jun 26 '18 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ I largely agree with you, but I also agree with Gerry in that the community has always been on a fence about what to do with homework questions. The only plus side (if you can call it that) to having a homework tag was that everybody could tell at a glance who was repfarming. You see, the three highest scoring tags are listed next to the username on all the rep league pages. This allowed for silent laughs: Ok, user N.N. The site software has determined that you are an expert on calculus and homework. Congratulations! $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 26 '18 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ Another point (somewhat related to Gerry's comment) is that earlier, much earlier, posting excellent answers to homework questions was not at odds with adding new content to the site. This changed (IMNSHO) when dupes started arriving. But certain types of answerers also use the argument that what was ook in the past should still be ok. This is difficult to change because unlearning would have to take place. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Nov 22 '18 at 12:45
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Referencing @XanderHenderson's excellent answer, how about the following proposal:

  1. Keep the existing voting incentives for lower-rep users. We don't want to encourage serial-downvoters.
  2. Once user rep has gotten past some suitable number, maybe 1k, use +1 rep for any two votes, up or down. The reason not to have +1 for every vote is that we probably don't want to make the "Epic" and "Legendary" badges that easy to get.
  3. Once user rep has gotten past some higher suitable number, maybe 10k, use +1 rep for 5 votes, up or down. (This aspect optional; maybe we keep #2 and don't reduce rep points for voting. We do already have a 200-vote limit for a day. We want high-rep users to vote.)

The idea here is to get experienced users to vote. This would mitigate our current need for more moderators, by essentially motivating everyone to moderate a lot more. We could even play around with the idea of subtracting from a user's rep a small amount (say, 1-5 points) for not voting in, say, a one-week period.

Now the disadvantage of this scheme (as opposed to, say, simply electing more moderators) is that it would probably require coding changes, or at least configuration changes; the distinct advantage is that we can essentially gain an enormous number of moderators. Also, we are tapping into what is supposed to be essentially the main moderation mechanism of all SE sites: voting.

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    $\begingroup$ How do your proposed radical changes to earning reputation on Math.SE relate to the "identity crisis" in your Question? I see no obvious connection, nor do I think these idiosyncratic changes will benefit the mission of collecting and curating excellent content. $\endgroup$ – hardmath Jun 26 '18 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ @hardmath: I thought the connection was as follows: 1. The problem is that there are many, many PSQ-type questions not being downvoted aggressively enough. 2. They are not being downvoted enough because there isn't a motivation to do so on the part of experienced M.SE users. 3. Solution: increase the motivation to vote. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 26 '18 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ @hardmath: I don't think these changes are all that idiosyncratic. We already have rep-based reputation numbers for upvotes on comments. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 27 '18 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ You've lost me with the last Comment. I infer from your "increase the motivation to vote" that you propose voting on Questions (on Answers? on Comments?) would earn reputation points for the voter in some circumstances. This has never been the case on any StackExchange site. Can you give a link about "rep-based reputation numbers for upvotes on comments"? $\endgroup$ – hardmath Jun 27 '18 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ @hardmath: I appear to be completely wrong about the comment rep, as well as the voting rep. Reference for comment voting: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/17364/…. Reference for Q&A voting: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/9508/… and here (down-voting used to lose you 1 point; as of May 2011 it no longer does): meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7237/how-does-reputation-work. All I'm suggesting here is a motivation to vote. If we want stronger voting, how do we get it? $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 27 '18 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ @hardmath: Isn't the argument, "This has never been the case on any StackExchange site." technically an ad populum fallacy? $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 27 '18 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ It isn't a fallacy when justifying a claim that $A$ is idiosyncratic to note that there are no other instances. $\endgroup$ – hardmath Jun 27 '18 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @hardmath: What I mean was that I thought the thrust of your argument was as follows (otherwise why mention it?): 1. No other SE site has such a voting-based rep system. 2. Therefore M.SE shouldn't have one. If this is not your argument, then again, my mistake. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Keister Jun 27 '18 at 16:43

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